Mountain Time Trial

i can’t think what tempted me to enter this one; maybe it was the words ‘essentially alpine in nature’, or ’13km jaunt up a mountain’. anyway, stung by more than a few DNS this year, i was determined to get some more racing under my lycra, so to speak. with this in mind i travelled to the heart of wales, although travelled is strangely inaccurate – ’embarked upon an epic norse saga’ is perhaps more appropriate, in order to compete in the West Wales Cyclists’ Mountain Time Trial up the Black Mountain.

i broke the journey at newport with some track riding; although i had to use a hire-bike because i had my road bike with me for the race the next day. this made me feel a little bit grubby, somehow soiled and not good enough, clipping into the dented pinarello with a wonky quick-release seatpost when really i wanted to be astride my raleigh track pro, a glistening chrome and red ego-chariot. i conserved my energy and just did the warm up and a few laps. the chaps were admiring my new zipp 340 tubular wheelset. i strategically left them on show for this very reason.

i got the train from newport to swansea; i don’t think i’m doing anyone a disservice by saying that this particular stretch of welsh coastline is not one of the principality’s beauty spots. in fact, as i mentioned to belle during the 2 seconds of the entire journey that i got phone reception, one of the corridors of uncertainty through the industrial post apocalyptic wasteland gave every indication of being (truly) the toilet of the universe.

but the sun came out, and a small train took me away from swansea and into the luminous and sublime beauty of the brecon beacons. i stayed in a small farmhouse b+b, they had no guests so they gave me a cottage to stay in which was pretty amazing, and a bit odd. i had a 3 bedroom palace for £30. it was great, and i was tired. it’s hard to understate how dark and quiet it was. i was unprepared for the utter darkness, a void which swallowed everything on turning out the light, it was an encompassing and total blackout, and the only sound was the occasional skittering of bats in the eves. i just prayed i wouldn’t have to get up in the night, wondering aimlessly like some sort of drunk, shellshocked veteran.

anyway, the race. the parcours ran from llangadog to the top of the black mountain. the first 3 miles were gentle, about 3%, then it kicked up massively. the start is in the base of the valley, near to a little town called Bethlehem.

this is near the top – it’s a found image, i didn’t get the chance to take any, apart from of the strange place names on the even more epic journey back afterwards. the height gain is below:

for the first stretch along and up the valley, the temptation is to really put the hammer down; i was doing around 22mph if i remember, trying to keep a healthy cadence, not go off too hard and get tricked into riding like it was a ten, but save energy for the steeper inclines in the knowledge that this is where the time gains would be made. i was also confident from the field that choosing a road bike was best; most of the gaunt-looking mountain goats were on road bikes; and this was a good sign; i felt that any time lost to a power-merchant during the first 3 miles would be reined in sharpish once the hill took shape.

the incline turned into a steady ascent, alpine in nature; 7-9% with a few sections where it ramped up, and some hairpins near the top. for me, this is probably the perfect climb, not unlike burrington combe, just 4 times longer. i’d been feeling rubbish for a few weeks, no form, illness, no races, no intensity, and had been trying to get back some sense of order and a training schedule over the two weeks prior. it seemed to come together and i felt good on the climb, on top of the cadence, being able to shift up rather than reach down, maintaining a rhythm. i felt disadvantaged by not knowing the climb, but other things worked in my favour – i caught about 6 of the 9 riders up the road ahead of me. the rider behind looked fast, i could see it in his eyes at the start; and i held him off all the way up; i think i gave him the jitters because he was up for the win and didn’t see me until the 6 mile mark. he went on to win and set the course record, and i lost only 45 seconds to him over the whole TT; which i am really pleased about, and came fourth overall, my highest placing in an open event. it means i can say i got within 45 seconds of the course record, which is affirming.

the psychology of the minuteman is a funny one – if you know you’re going well you generally expect to catch them, unless you also know they are much stronger; in an event like this i expect to catch people, it’s a motivating factor, and i don’t expect to be caught unless, again, you’re being chased by the eagle of toledo (in which case you can catch up when he stops for an ice cream). him not seeing me for about 6 miles would have been a bit jittery for this reason, he expected the catch but it never happened. i knew he was quicker once i saw him, but that was fine with me, and once he’d seen me, he could relax a little knowing that he’d made up some of the minute deficit, thus beating me in terms of time.

despite the schlep, it was worth going; i’ve got some confidence back, i’m really thrilled with the result. i felt i could have gone a bit quicker – as always – but in a good way, if i’d known the finish maybe i could have buried myself a bit more; but it makes for an unedifying spectacle. the chap in third came over the line making a terrible sound, a real death rattle, white stuff coming from nose, eyes, ears and mouth in a synaesthetic riot of excess endeavour. he was a big chap and he went very deep indeed. there is valour in discretion.

average speed: 17.4 mph.


The highlight of this weekend (amongst other things) has been a trip to the black mountains for cycling purposes. as part of preparation for ventoux, me and two others decided to head out and tackle the gospel pass, a lovely and fairly long climb that stretches between abergavenny and hay on wye. the weather seemed spring-like, with temperatures rising and a first outing for my 3/4 lengths; a significant moment after the winter we have had. the first ten miles or so were beautiful, clear and no wind; but as we began to climb the cloud descended and the wind picked up – with a clear micro-climate enshrouding the mountains.

there was still the remnants of snowfall on the edges and in the sheltered spots; glacial and frozen snowdrifts that linger on despite the slight warmth in the air; it seemed vaguely surreal. the Gospel Pass kicks up on a few occasions and is a very narrow single track road; barely any cars seem to be there, or any humans at all, instead it’s populated by hardy hill-sheep and depressed looking livestock.

in the far distance is graham, just coming up to the crest. once over the top it’s a precipitous and fairly windy descent down to hay, which can be taken at high speed. for the rest of the ride we tended to skirt the edge of the hills; occasionally venturing back into the national park; every turn inwards meant a hill of 1 in 4, or with ramps going up to 1 in 3, and the height gain was very rapid and pretty astounding. it’s amazing how easy it is to get there, and how utterly awe-inspiring the cycling is. my legs ache, a good sign.

next weekend signals more racing.

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